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In the Deep Places: 15. The Lady of Light
They came to Caras Galadhon well after dark. After one tantalizing glimpse of immense golden towers in the distance, Haldir had led them on what seemed an endless hike through the woods, wending on and on in a vast circular path until the Hobbits were visibly dragging their feet and even Gimli’s strong legs ached.
The March-warden claimed that this was necessary because the city had no gates to the north, and they must circle all the way to the south to enter. Gimli had his doubts about this last – what was wrong with using a west gate? Surely even Elves would not be so foolish as to build a city with no exits at all.
But at least it was believable that they had no entrance to the north. These Lórien Elves seemed to have shut themselves away from all dangers of Middle-earth, and doubtless they would not have a door toward the dark tower above their border.
He glanced at Legolas as he thought this. The Mirkwood Elf’s jaw was set, and his face betrayed nothing at Haldir’s explanation.
Gimli felt a fleeting sympathy for the prince. He had lived long years in Erebor, and though Dol Guldur was far to the south, the Dwarves were too practical to ever dismiss its threat. Indeed that danger had come into stark relief in recent months, when the Black Riders had ventured to treat at their very doorstep. And though they did not acknowledge it openly, every Dwarf and Man of Esgaroth knew that the Wood-elves stood as the last line between them and the Shadow of the tower.
If only they were not so blasted prideful, Gimli thought. One could almost like them for it.
Stars were glinting between the black outlines of the branches overhead, and the Elves had lit silver lamps that cast a gentle radiance as they walked, when the Company passed at last through the south gate. Haldir’s talk of a “city” had given Gimli hope of something more civilized than the flets, or at least more solid. But this was dashed as they came nearer to the place. What he had taken for towering spires were now revealed as only more trees, larger than any he had ever seen, with vast smooth trunks that gleamed white as marble in the dark. But they were only trees. There was no sign of houses or any habitation that he could see, save for the massive south gates that swung ponderously open at Haldir’s touch.
The wood was eerily still, but as they walked Gimli could feel countless unseen eyes upon them, and it seemed to him that there was something, some whispered speech or music just beyond the range of his ears. He hunched his shoulders and studied the path beneath his feet, trying to walk silently.
“Where is everyone?” Pippin whispered.
“Look up,” Frodo said in a hushed voice.
Gimli looked up, and his heart stuttered painfully in his chest. The giant silvered trunks stretched endlessly above them, and their outstretched boughs wove in latticed patterns far overhead. Thousands of lights flickered red and gold and blue and silver like stars come down to twine the branches. Countless flets were woven seamlessly amongst them, seeming a part of the trees themselves. Gimli caught only the merest glimpse of their polished wood, the flowing railings and carved pillars that followed the natural growth of the trees, and enhanced them. More tree houses, he thought, and suppressed a groan, but the craftsman within him could not help but admire the blend of functionality and form in the graceful structures. They were far too flimsy, and far too high off the ground for his taste, but they were beautiful.
There were Elves moving amongst them as well, and the golden leaves gleamed in their soft radiance. And how many more were there, unseen, watching him? Gimli took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. I can do this. They’re only Elves. I can do this.
Haldir led them to the base of the greatest mallorn they had yet encountered, with a trunk so huge that thirty Dwarves with arms outstretched might not have circled its base. Gimli tilted his head back to look up, and his stomach lurched.
“At least it isn’t rope,” Boromir muttered, and when Gimli looked at him he gave a sickly smile.
The ladder was not rope, but neither was it the solid stair that Gimli might have wished. It was broad and smooth, clearly as permanent a structure as these Elves ever made, and yet so frail and weak to Gimli’s eyes. Looking at the massive tree bole that stretched up straight and smooth as silver glass until the first boughs broke away some fifty feet above them, Gimli understood why these tree-dwellers kept a ladder here. He doubted that even Legolas could have climbed such a tree unaided.
Three Elves stood at the ladder’s base, clad in grey mail with their hands resting on their sword hilts. Haldir paused to speak to one of them before turning back to the Fellowship. “Here dwell Celeborn and Galadriel,” he said. “It is their wish that you ascend and speak to them.”
Gimli wondered briefly at the possibility of this Celeborn and Galadriel rather descending, instead, but one of the guards blew upon a small horn, and the call was answered three times in clear faint tones from far above. “I will go first,” Haldir said. “Let Frodo come next and with him Legolas. The others may follow as they wish.”
And if we do not wish? Gimli thought, but with a last, faintly condescending suggestion that they might rest if they had need, Haldir set off up the stair. Frodo followed him slowly, and Legolas came directly after. The Elf seemed to pace his steps to match the Ring-bearer’s, and Gimli noted that he kept one hand ready to catch the Hobbit if he should slip.
Boromir and Aragorn held a hurried consultation, and the result was that Merry and Pippin followed with Boromir just behind, and then Sam and Aragorn. Each of the Men was poised to aid the Hobbits in any difficulty.
Which left Gimli to come last of all. Acutely conscious of the armed Elves watching him, he wiped his palms swiftly on his leggings and took firm grasp of the ladder. He breathed a quick prayer to Mahal and began to climb. The ladder did not sway as the rope had done, but it shivered at each thump of his heavy boots, and did not assure him of its makers’ skill.
The steps too were unnervingly far apart, spaced for Elven legs with disconcertingly large gaps through which he could see the smooth trunk before him, and the ground far, far below. Gimli locked his eyes directly ahead and took each rung in a white knuckled grip as he climbed. His tongue felt dry and shriveled to the roof of his mouth. His palms were slick with sweat, and he stopped again and again to wipe them on his tunic before taking the next step. He felt as though all the weight of his chain mail and weapons and pack were dragging him backward, pulling him from the meager safety of the ladder, if indeed the ladder itself did not come free of the tree and fall away beneath him. Elven architecture. My life depends on Elven architecture. Lord Mahal preserve me.
They stopped twice along the way to rest the Hobbits’ legs, pausing on the small flets that were scattered amongst the branches all along the ladder’s length. Climbing was bad enough, but stopping on these flimsy structures was worse yet. Gimli could feel the horrible drop below him, the vast empty space all around. It took every ounce of his courage and stubborn pride to wait while the others recovered, to then wait further while they climbed up ahead of him, and then finally to force his hands and legs to carry him yet higher.
Finally, finally they reached the crest. The tree did not end here, but continued on in a bole like a great pillar, narrower now but still large, going yet higher upward into a cloud of arching golden leaves. But the ladder opened into a vast flet that stretched like a deck before them.
Gimli took the last step on legs that trembled and jerked with fatigue. He could have simply collapsed on the blessedly smooth floor, surrounded by even more blessedly solid walls. But instead he straightened as befit a descendent of Durin, and looked about with an outer calm that belied the pounding of his heart.
The room – hall, he supposed it must be called, though it was too light and fragile seeming for the word as he knew it – was filled with Elves. They all fell silent as the Company came in, and he could feel them staring at the Men, at the Hobbits, at him. He stared back at them with as much pride as he could muster, and tried not to wince as he carefully flexed the cramp from his fingers.
Two chairs were seated beneath a golden bough before the tree bole, and here the Lord and Lady stood to greet them. Gimli gave them a cursory glance, but he was largely preoccupied with keeping his knees from giving way before all these Elves. He tried not to think of the long climb they would have to make to get down again.
But the Lord, Celeborn, had drawn Frodo aside, and he greeted each of the others as they came onto the flet. Gimli’s scattered attention was caught as he called Aragorn by name and made reference to some journey he had made here long ago. The Ranger placed his hand over his heart and bowed, Elf-fashion, to each of them.
The Hobbits, and Boromir, also bowed when the Lord greeted them. But when it came Legolas’ turn the Mirkwood prince stepped forward and dropped gracefully to one knee, bowing his head. “Welcome son of Thranduil,” Celeborn said. “Too seldom do my kindred journey hither from the north.”
“Your welcome honors us, my Lord,” Legolas replied, rising to his feet. “Alas that darkness of these times has constrained our opportunities for travel. Fair Lothlórien is a blessing to behold.”
There was something in the way he said this that made Gimli pause to look more closely. Lord Celeborn raised one elegant brow, and for a long moment he and Legolas locked gazes in silence. Then a corner of Celeborn’s mouth quirked. “Thranduilion indeed,” he murmured.
Legolas bowed again. “Hir nîn,” he said.
Gimli was not certain, but he thought that Legolas might have just criticized one of the great Elf lords of Middle-earth. His heart warmed at the thought.
Then the Lord turned to him, and he tensed in anticipation. What welcome could he expect here? But Celeborn spoke warmly. “Welcome Gimli son of Glóin! It is long indeed since we saw one of Durin’s folk in Caras Galadhon. But today we have broken our long law. May it be a sign that though the world is now dark better days are at hand, and that friendship shall be renewed between our peoples.”
A low murmur swept through the watching Elves and Gimli blinked in surprise. But there was no challenge in the Elf lord’s words, and his grey eyes were clear and kind. Gimli felt as though the world had skewed slightly on its axis. After the disdain of the guards, and the long march blindfolded and shamed, and the nerve-wracking climb up into the tree-tops, he hardly knew how to respond to this unexpected courtesy. Finally he bowed low, feeling the ache in his back and legs.
“At your service, my Lord,” he said, but his mind was a whirl of confusion, and he scarcely heeded what he said, or indeed spoke loudly enough for the others to take note.
Chairs were brought, and they sat down at last in a half-circle before the Lord and Lady. Gimli sighed in relief at the easing of his weary muscles, and scarcely cared that the overly large chair meant that his feet barely touched the floor. He wished briefly for his pipe. But then Celeborn began to question them about their journey, and he came to full attention.
Aragorn recounted their journey from Rivendell, the blocked attempt of Caradhras and the passage through Moria, though he made no mention of their purpose. The Elves cried aloud in shock and grief when he told of Gandalf’s death, and Celeborn demanded a more detailed account. A knot formed in Gimli’s stomach as Aragorn spoke of the Chamber of Mazarbul, and the fire, and the bridge, and finally the demon.
“An evil of the ancient world it seemed,” said Aragorn, “such as I have never seen before. It was both a shadow and a flame, strong and terrible.”
“It was a Balrog of Morgoth,” Legolas said, and his eyes were very dark. “Of all Elf-banes the most deadly, save the One who sits in the Dark Tower.”
Gimli shuddered at the word, but he could not remain silent. Legolas called it an Elf bane, and so it was, but this was a horror more personal to his kin, and he would not let his people’s history be ignored, painful though it was to speak of it. “Indeed I saw upon the bridge that which haunts our darkest dreams,” he said softly. “I saw Durin’s Bane.”
Celeborn stood in a swift, agitated motion, his eyes flashing. “Alas!” he said. “We long have feared that under Caradhras a terror slept. But had I known that the Dwarves had stirred up this evil in Moria again, I would have forbidden you to pass the northern borders, you and all that went with you.”
Gimli’s head jerked up in shock, and he stared hard at the Elf lord. But Celeborn continued, his voice now soft as he turned away. “And if it were possible, one would say that at the last Gandalf fell from wisdom into folly, going needlessly into the net of Moria.”
At that Gimli leaped to his feet, his hand reaching for his axe. Let these mighty Elves insult him, even insult his kin – that was to be expected. But to insult Gandalf, Gandalf who had guided them, who had fought for them, who had sacrificed at last his very life to save them while this Elf lord sat in his peaceful kingdom and cast judgment upon him – that was not to be borne! The other members of the Fellowship had also tensed, and Boromir made as if to rise, but Aragorn grabbed his arm. Legolas had not moved, but every line of his body was drawn taut, and he stared hard at Celeborn.
But before Gimli could move, or the others say anything, the Lady spoke. Gimli had heard her before, when she had talked of Gandalf being veiled from her sight, but he had not paid such Elven mysticism much heed. But now she spoke in a voice of command, and he drew up short.
“He would be rash indeed that said that thing,” Galadriel said, and her voice was low and grave, and threaded with deep power that sent a chill up Gimli’s spine. “Needless were none of the deeds of Gandalf in life. Those that followed him knew not his mind and cannot report his full purpose. But however it may be with the guide, the followers are blameless. Do not repent of your welcome to the Dwarf.”
Celeborn turned to look at her, and for a long moment they seemed to share some silent communication. Then the Lord sat down again, but he did not look at Gimli. The Lady went on, her voice gentle as she touched her husband’s arm. “If our folk had been exiled long and far from Lothlórien, who of the Galadhrim, even Celeborn the Wise, would pass nigh and would not wish to look upon their ancient home, though it had become an abode of dragons?”
She looked then full into Gimli’s eyes, and he found himself sinking back into his seat before the clear light of her gaze. Her voice was soft, and sweet with sorrow as the fall of gentle rain upon an arid land. “Dark is the water of Kheled-zâram, and cold are the springs of Kibil-nâla, and fair were the many-pillared halls of Khazad-dûm in Elder Days before the fall of mighty kings beneath the stone.”
Gimli stared at her, his face gone slack with shock. Never had the names of the ancient tongue sounded so fair as they did now, given in her voice. He met her gaze, and felt himself falling into the depths of her eyes. There was light in them, and peace, and understanding, and he felt it as a balm upon the deep ache of his heart. Never had he been so kindly understood, so perfectly forgiven, as when he looked now into the loving eyes of one who might have been his enemy.
In that instant the deep-laid cracks of his world’s foundation gave way, and all of Arda as he knew it crumbled beneath him and reformed, and he fell full into a world new made of the shattered fragments. In his eyes’ unveiling he saw the Lady before him as if for the first time, and it seemed to him that her hair was like a river of molten gold, and her skin shone as the light of dawn upon the mountain snows, and her eyes were deep with the wisdom of all the ages.
He rose to his feet and bowed low, feeling the words clumsy on his tongue, ill suited to her beauty, or the love he bore her. “Yet more fair is the living land of Lórien,” he said, “and the Lady Galadriel is above all the jewels that lie beneath the earth.”
She smiled, and he sat down again, feeling the blush heat his cheeks. But he did not care that the Elves murmured together, or that the other members of the Fellowship were looking at him in astonishment. Were it possible, she was even more beautiful when she smiled.
There was a long silence. Legolas glanced about, faintly amused by the reactions of the surrounding Elves. Gimli had surprised him before in the course of their journey, and he had learned not to assume too much about what the Dwarf might say or do in a given circumstance. But never had he imagined that Gimli was capable of such fair speech, much less that he would speak so to a Lady of the Eldar. The revelation was doubly shocking to these Elves of Lórien, who had not the benefit of his experience with Dwarves, or at least with this particular Dwarf.
Lord Celeborn finally broke the spell, apologizing graciously for his hard words. “I spoke in the trouble of my heart,” he said. “I will do what I can to aid you, each according to his wish and need, but especially that one of the little folk who bears the burden.”
Legolas broke from his musings and came instantly to full attention, and he felt Aragorn stiffen beside him. Would they speak so openly of the Ring here?
But the Lady deflected the matter, and spoke instead of the Long Defeat, and the gathering of the White Council. Legolas studied her with narrowed eyes. His father had sat upon the Council at some few of its infrequent meetings, and had ever come away frustrated at its seemingly willful impotence. Four times had the Council met in the Third Age, and only when Saruman had feared the One Ring’s discovery had it done anything to aid Mirkwood’s fight against Dol Guldur.
Perhaps it was as Galadriel said: that had they followed her Mithrandir would have been appointed head of the Council, and things would have gone different. But head of the Council or no, he thought, Saruman was only one voice, and Legolas sensed in the Lady the pure resonance of one who had seen the Light of the Trees.
There was serene power in her, a quiet strength like that he had felt in Mithrandir and lord Elrond, and that spoke more to him of Lothlórien’s secrets than all of Haldir’s veiled words had done. The bearer of an Elven Ring was not left to chance, and the wisdom of the Noldor was not lightly disregarded. Did she pretend that the Council would be so blind, had the Shadow stretched over Lórien rather than Mirkwood? She spoke of the Long Defeat, but her land was yet at peace.
But then she fell silent, and turned her clear eyes upon them one by one, and Legolas felt as though all the slow deep power of this wood were come to bear and focused in the intensity of her gaze. Of the Hobbits, Frodo stood longest before her, but even he soon shivered and looked away. Gimli met her eyes for a long moment, coming to his feet and standing proudly before her. But then a slow blush crept up under the ruddy hue of his beard, and he blinked and bowed quickly, sitting back in his chair with downcast eyes.
Boromir lifted his chin as she turned to him, and it seemed to Legolas that her eyes hardened, and bore into the Man like bright chips of diamond ere he looked aside, ashen faced and trembling.
Then she came to him, and looked long into his eyes. His heart stilled, and his breath ceased as his mind opened and he felt his spirit’s tone come in harmony with hers. And at her will their tone changed, so that without words exchanged his thought turned toward the Ring.
But It came as a harsh discord in the Song, and Legolas shied back. He broke away, pulling out of her resonance, and felt himself standing again on the flet before her.
They were separate now, but still the faint harmony remained, and her thought flashed bright between them.
You think ill of me, Thranduilion.
He scarcely dared to think, locked in her gaze, but there could be no secrets now. I am confused, my Lady.
But you would give counsel, rather than seek it.
I do not pretend to do either, my Lady.
And yet you think it nonetheless. There was no condemnation in her thought, only calm assertion that gave no chance for doubt. He felt the depth of the Song within her, and knew that it was useless to pretend any longer.
It seems strange to me, he thought finally, that one people alone should fight that which threatens us all.
Her eyes darkened, and he felt the long weight of the ages in them. You are very young, my prince. You would forget that the One you fight is only a servant of the Great Enemy that we have known since before the stars were kindled. You imagine that the War is fought with blades alone.
Forgive me, my Lady. But Legolas did not look away. I would not forget such things, for I have felt the terror of the ancient world, and I saw Mithrandir fall before it. But my people are dying now.
Then will you not go to them? His heart clenched suddenly at her thought. Will you abandon them, when their need is great?
He felt himself go deadly still. What do you intend, my Lady?
You speak of your people’s sacrifice. But you have within your grasp a power that could change their fortunes in this War.
The world hushed, time stilled, and there was nothing but her eyes, and the awful truth she saw. In his mind he heard again Aragorn’s words, “You could make Greenwood great once more…” and he knew that she heard them as well. But he answered truthfully, and stronger than the doubts of his heart there was the stubborn pride of a son of Thranduil. We do not require aids of the Enemy. The Ring cannot help us.
And yet you would covet that which guards Lothlórien.
He did not answer, for he could not deny the truth she saw in his heart. You cast judgment upon us, prince of Mirkwood, because to your eyes we are strong, and we do not share that strength with you. You cannot see how we envy you.
Legolas frowned, looking with confusion into the gentle sorrow of her gaze, and she smiled faintly. Even so does the falcon upon the falconer’s glove envy the wild hawk its flight, though it flies before the hunter’s arrows. But the hawk at least may yet escape. Whatever end may come of the Ring-bearer’s Quest, our fate remains unchanged. Think now, Thranduilion, were I to come to Lasgalen, would your father welcome that which I bear?
He hesitated, unsure of her meaning, and she continued. Oropher led his people alone at Dagorlad rather than follow the high king’s banner. Rash we called him, but he would rather die free than live thrall to another’s command. Think you that his son would now give over his land to our rule, even though it be an abode of spiders?
Legolas tensed. He could not conceive of Thranduil forsaking the oath he had sworn to his people, nor the proud Wood-elves accepting a Lady of the Noldor, even though she be wed to Celeborn the Wise. She knew this. What then could she gain from this game? I do not ask for your rule, Lady, nor even your protection. Only for your aid against that which threatens us all.
But it would come to be the same in the end, my prince. The deep grief of her thought nearly overwhelmed him. The Rings of the Elves do not glory in power or war. Yet you would have me stretch out my hand to the DarkTower, and make its realm as to my own. Think you then that it would stop there?
Legolas looked at her, and felt the power within her, and a chill came over him like a cloud cast over the sun. I know little of Rings or ancient powers, my Lady, he thought finally. But I do know that two warriors are greater than one, and the wardens of the Golden Wood are skilled in blade and bow. I would ask for friendship between our peoples.
She was still, and he felt again her thought seeking deep within him. Then suddenly she smiled. Look to your friends, Hir Legolas. For in friendship may lie the hope of us all.
Then she looked away, to Aragorn, and Legolas sagged slightly in the release of a breath he had not known he held. He watched as she held Aragorn in her gaze, and his heart pounded, though he would have denied that if asked. The Lady was seeking their responses to the Ring, that much was certain, and he thought of the strange glint in Aragorn’s eyes, the loathing and despair with which he had condemned himself.
But Aragorn stood tall and strong before the Lady, and his clear eyes met hers fearlessly. It seemed a long time that they stood thus, but Aragorn did not look away, and finally the Lady smiled, and stepped back. The Fellowship was released to seek their rest.
Hir nîn: my lord
Next up: Chapter 16. More diplomacy for Legolas, and Gimli engages in blatant Elf worship. Hey, it’s canon.
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